DeKaylin (D.K.) Metcalf, the Ole Miss product and future NFL wide receiver, broke the internet over few weeks ago after he posted a shirtless picture of himself in the gym, displaying a six pack and jacked up shoulders and chest that every guy dreams of. Then, at the NFL Combine, Metcalf officially weighed in 6’3”, 228 lbs. and 1.6% body fat…yes, you read that correctly. Are these numbers and Metcalf’s physique impressive? Of course they are. However, his low body fat could have a negative effect on his long term health.
Let’s start by reviewing Metcalf’s time in Oxford while playing for Ole Miss. Metcalf’s college career was riddled by injury. In his three years in college, he only played in a total of 21 games and not once did he top 1,000 yards in the receiving game. In 2016, during his freshman season, he suffered a broken bone in his left foot in the second game of the season, ending his first collegiate season early. He went on to redshirt in 2016 as he rehabbed the fracture in his foot. He came back strong in 2017, playing in all 12 games for the Rebels, hauling in seven touchdowns. However, in 2018, Metcalf’s season was again cut short due to a serious neck injury.
Per Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke, Metcalf’s injury was originally thought to be a strain or a whiplash type of injury. However, an MRI confirmed the bad news – a fractured C3 vertebrae which Metcalf would require surgery, ending his season. He underwent surgery in October of 2018. The exact details regarding what happened with this fracture are unclear, but obviously if it required surgery, it was more serious than not. Non-displaced simple fractures can heal without surgical intervention, so it’s possible (again, speculating) that the fracture was displaced, causing some nerve irritation. Regardless of what was done in his surgery, this injury is unlikely to cause lingering issues. Another hard fall on the neck or head could have ramifications, but unless there is a freak accident or a direct blow to head or neck, he should be fine.
In terms of Metcalf’s ridiculous body mass, strength, and appearance, this is an issue if he continues to play with less than 2% body fat. Body fat is the measure of the percentage of your body mass that is fat. It is normal and necessary to have body fat for health and optimal function. It can be found in a variety of areas – under the skin (what we see), around organs, and in muscles (think of a marbled steak). Other areas of small amounts of fat are found in nerve, tendon, and joints, and this type of fat is known as essential fat.
According to the American Council on Exercise, normal body fat percentage in athletes ranges from 6-13%, much higher than Metcalf’s 1.6%. In addition, it is thought that being below 5% body fat is dangerous and unhealthy. There is one caveat here, and that is that Metcalf has reportedly played at 240 lbs. in college, so if that is his true playing weight, he is likely playing at closer to 5-6% body fat, which is more safe. Boxers, wrestlers, bodybuilders, and MMA fighters often try to cut weight and unnecessary mass in order to weigh in at a certain threshold to be able to compete, but these athletes never stay at their low “competition” weight. It’s simply unsustainable and unhealthy. With that being said, I suspect that Metcalf was working out like crazy prior to the Combine, dropping a few lbs. in order to run a faster 40-yard dash and be able to display his athleticism and impressive body image.
Once drafted into the NFL, there’s no way an NFL caliber strength and conditioning coach, physical therapist, or team physician is going to let D.K. play at less than 2% body fat, as it will increase his risk for injury. Fat, or adipose tissue, is essential for providing cushion to our organs, maintaining hormone production, and most importantly for an athlete, energy storage. If he can’t put on a little bit of extra body fat, he is going to struggle to make his way through the rigors of a 16-game NFL season and will very likely hit the “rookie wall.”
A lower body fat percentage, while it may look nice in the gym, is associated with several issues. Being too low on fat can lead to lower energy levels with reduced athletic performance with activities that last longer than 30 minutes. In addition, the muscles are not able to recover quickly after exercise. Furthermore, extremely low body fat percentage can cause you to be weaker. Aside from this, having a very low body fat percentage carries a greater risk of cardiovascular dysfunction, the athlete is more likely to get sick, and it is more likely that the individual will struggle with mental acuity and focus.
All in all, Metcalf will be better served to work with a nutritionist in order to ensure he is getting the appropriate nutrients and fuel for him to perform at an optimal level. In addition, he would be better served to play at 6-8% body fat in order to reduce his injury risk and to optimize his health and function as a professional athlete.